I was listening to a news story on NPR today about Jewish citizens of France returning to Israel in the wake of increased anti-Jewish sentiment — there were, of course, the inevitable complaints about France turning into an Islamic state. While I have nothing productive to say about that incredibly stupid idea, it made me think about a certain period of history from which we can all, I think, draw some lessons about coexistence and cooperation, not just in light of Islamification or Islamophobia (take your pick) in Europe, but also when thinking about America’s current border crisis and the situation in Gaza.
You see, I am deeply disappointed in the resurgence of sectarianism in recent years, not because I think we’re above it (we’re not), but because humankind and even ‘Western Civilization’ have experimented with multi-religious and multi-cultural societies in the FUCKING MIDDLE AGES, mostly with positive results. One of the more interesting instances of this is in the Iberian Peninsula following the Islamic conquests in the 8th century CE.
Here’s your refresher: between 711 and 718, forces of the Umayyad Caliphate crossed over the Strait of Gibraltar from North Africa and met with immediate success in conquering the divided Visigothic kingdom In Hispania. The conquered area — called Al-Andalus by the Umayyads — became the Caliphate of Cordoba, and would be a source of stress and intrigue for Europe for seven centuries, especially the embattled royalty of Spain, who would spend hundreds of years pursuing their reconquista.
What is remarkable is that during this period, Muslims, Jews, and Christian lived together in many communities in Spain, trading, sharing ideas, and coexisting with hardly any genocide at all. This was labelled convivencia by Iberian scholar Americo Castro, and while the term has become embattled in recent years because of its overly romantic image of a complex and problematic period in history, it remains a useful term for distinguishing a time period when the three major Abrahamic religions lived together in relative harmony.
Though convivencia refers exclusively to Iberia and this remains our most powerful example, mixed religious communities existed in Hungary — where the presence of pagan Cumans made the religious community four-pronged, rather than three — Constantinople, the Levant, and many places in the Yuan Dynasty. There was plenty of sectarian violence, even in Iberia, but these spurts were limited in scope and motivated as much by financial and societal pressures as religious ones. The eschatalogical tone of today’s sectarian conflicts was notably absent.
These communities existed in the much-maligned ‘Dark Ages’ and the Medieval Era, and the world failed to end. Not only did the existence of Jews and Muslims in Spain not doom the peninsula to become a burka-dominated Hispania-stan, it couldn’t even prevent it from becoming the heart of Catholic power for hundreds of years.
These were the politics of the frontier, where cultures mixed and diffused and identities were determined over decades or centuries of struggle and pressure. Like it or not, Europe is now a sort of frontier, as historians might term it, as are the southern regions of the United States and the Gaza Strip. Like Medieval Spain, they are notable for the intermixing of cultural forces and for the tensions that have arisen from those conflicts. Unlike the Christians of medieval Spain, however, the citizens of these cultural frontiers are falling back on xenophobia and sectarian division, rather than recognizing the way that such cultural diffusion can enrich and empower a nation.
The existence of Muslims in medieval Spain didn’t destroy its identity or sap its national vigor, and neither will it do so in France. Similarly, allowing immigrants across Americas southern border will hardly spell the end of American sovereignty.
I should note though, that France isn’t denying entrance to lands that they stole from Muslims in the 19th century.